Sahiyo participates in the End Violence Against Girls Summit on FGM/C

Sahiyo’s Mariya Taher and Insia Dariwala participated in the End Violence Against Girls: Summit on FGM/C in Washington, DC on December 2, at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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For the first time ever, the United Nations has prioritized the elimination of FGC under the goal of achieving gender equality as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)—a 15-year plan to help guide global development and funding in the “areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet.”

The day-long conference was an opportunity to bring together over 200 expert educators, medical providers, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, NGOs, activists, government officials, and others thought leaders from across the U.S. and the globe to discuss what best practices and interventions are needed to end this human rights violation worldwide by the year 2030. Participants came from over 20 countries including: Canada, Egypt, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Guinea, India, Iran, Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tanzania, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Participants also included girls and women who have lived through the ordeal of FGC, as well as many individuals from affected communities who are now driving through changes so that other girls and women can enjoy greater opportunities in the future. The summit sought to advance a comprehensive multi-sectoral approach to ending FGC and providing services to those affected.

Prior to the Summit Day, several side events and project took place to further collaboration between various stakeholders, including:

  • Panel discussion on “Streamlining and Strengthening FGM/C Data Collection” with presentations from Population Council and Sahiyo. To view the presentation, click here.
  • U.S. Exhibit of Faces of Defiance: A photo exhibit by psychotherapist and FGC campaigner Leyla Hussein and photographer Jason Ashwood celebrating U.S. FGC survivors as beautiful, confident, and proud of their achievements, despite their suffering.
  • Side meeting event between law enforcement, child protection professionals, and NGOs to discuss coordinated efforts to tackle FGC domestically in the U.S.
  • Activist meeting to provide an opportunity for activist from across the globe to network, collaborate, share lessons, insights, and best practice around advocacy and the power of personal stories.
  • Evening Reception- Violence Against Girls: U.S. Summit to End FGM/C

The conference was organized by Equality Now, Safe Hands for Girls, and the US End FGM/C Network with support from Wallace Global Fund and Human Dignity Foundation. Sahiyo’s Cofounder Mariya Taher was chair of the Community Leader Working Group for the Summit’s planning committee. To learn more about the summit, and to view a recording of the summit day, please visit https://www.usip.org/events/webcast-end-female-genital-mutilation

To hear Mariya and Insia speak about the goals of the summit and the work that Sahiyo does, watch the following clips here:

As a psychotherapist, I would not recommend khatna

by Anonymous

Age: 36

Country: India

I am a mental health professional and have been practicing counseling and therapy since 16 years. I learnt about the practice of ‘khatna’ (Type I FGM) by chance, as my family spoke about the ceremony for a cousin of mine. I wanted to know more. I did not realize that I too had undergone it. I have no memories save a snapshot of me feeling a burning sensation and then being examined by my mom and grandmom.

I grew up learning never to talk about this subject, as this was the haram boti that was removed from my body. I was told I was now pure. As I grew older and studied psychology, I came across an article that spoke about FGM, and suddenly I understood what had happened to me on that day. I was shaken, but left with no choice but to accept it, as no one understood the impact of what had happened – not even my progressive parents.  

My life proceeded from then on no differently from that of other girls. My marital life, especially the sex, was unaffected. I was able to have a satisfactory sexual life and also orgasms, and largely I felt I was not affected by the khatna. Either that, or I had repressed it so as to cope with the trauma that I may have undergone at the age of seven.

I remember at childbirth, however, I had to undergo an episiotomy. According to a study cited by the UNFPA, women who had undergone genital cutting faced a greater risk of needing a Caesarean section, an episiotomy and an extended hospital stay after childbirth, compared with uncut women.

In peer supervision earlier this year, I processed what happened to me and dealt with it as a part of my life. I recognize in hindsight that there are effects of FGM. It scars the soul and you wonder if it is even required to be done.

The procedure of khatna may cause lasting psychological stress. Among children, it could trigger disturbances in behaviour, often because of betrayal of trust by loved ones. Adult women could also develop anxiety and depression.

As a mental health professional who understands all this, would I recommend khatna? No I would not, as I find that at its core, it is a measure to control women’s sexuality. I would term it as intentional gender based violence.

Why the khatna conversation needs men’s voices too

(First published on June 7, 2016)
by Ammar Karimjee
Age:24
Country: Pakistan
I found out when I was 19. I’d just heard about the practice of female genital mutilationAmmar (FGM) in an Anthropology class, and had dismissed it as something that simply happens in rural African villages. After class, I’d expressed disgust to a friend about it, something along the lines of “Can you believe people still do things like this?” The friend was a fellow member of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who in this moment realized I must not have known.
After she spoke to me about it, I remained in disbelief. I was sure she must be wrong. I reached out to my mom and sister, and after a few in-depth conversations with them, it settled over me. A mix of emotions – anger, frustration, humiliation – all overcame me simultaneously. I didn’t do anything at first, I just needed some time to let it all sink in. After I’d had time to process, I realized I needed to do something.
At first, most of my involvement in my personal anti-FGM campaign came through conversations with people I knew, primarily men. Even in this initial stage, I realized how essential it would be to effectively engage men as part of this movement. Over time, I became involved in a few more formal networks that were also working on this issue, and through these, I’ve had the chance to speak at the United Nations on this issue as well as be a small part of the This American Life podcast a few weeks ago. It’s been an amazing journey to be a part of.
Below, I’ve shared some of the major learnings/thoughts I’ve developed over the last 5 years. I hope it can serve as a way for some of you to help think through this topic. If you have questions, there are a ton of us here to help guide you to the answers. If you’d simply like to talk further about this, please do not hesitate to reach out. You can always contact Sahiyo at info@sahiyo.com to become connected to others working on ending FGM.
Some men don’t want to even engage in the conversation about FGM. Part of this is because they dismiss it as an unimportant issue on face value, but I believe a larger part of this may have to do with the discomfort that comes with talking about the female body and the lack of knowledge that it results in.
As men, we do not intuitively understand the female body and biological processes that occur within it. Of course, we never will be able to truly know what being a woman feels like, but by gaining an understanding of how their bodies work, we can begin to have an idea. Naturally, we compare things that happen with a woman to its closest direct male counterpart. As such, we associate FGM, or circumcision as many people chose to incorrectly refer to it as, as the equivalent of male circumcision. This is a dangerous fallacy for men to turn to in their justification. The function of the male penis and a woman’s clitoris are not identical – not even close. Further, the benefits that come from male circumcision are simply not present in FGM. Please, please, please, do your research and understand the impact of this practice. It is terribly important for men to be aware of women’s bodies – not just specifically to be able to understand FGM, but for so many other reasons, health and otherwise.
For the men who were willing to talk about it, one constant held true – they had never talked about it before. Creating a space to have these conversations became an important part of the larger effort to engage men. But the snowball effect definitely holds true. Individual conversations I was leading turned to group conversations I was just a part of. Soon after, conversations started happening without me there at all. Awareness of FGM in the Bohra community has increased exponentially since I started speaking about this issue, especially in the last few months. However, the conversations happening are still dominated by women. It is of course amazing that so many women have started sharing their stories and thoughts. But we still live in a patriarchal context. Religious leaders are still men. Decision makers in families are still largely men.
We – the men – MUST start caring. We don’t have the option to be silent or ambivalent anymore. We can not keep pretending that it isn’t our problem. These are our friends, our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, and our wives. Read their stories. Understand what FGM is and how it affects them. Once you do, you’ll be as angry as I am. You won’t want it ever happening to anyone you’re close to. We can’t undo what has already happened to hundreds of thousands in our community – but we CAN prevent it from happening from this day forward.
To men everywhere – Start reading. Start talking. STOP FGM.

I was cut, but today I am proud to be standing up for myself

(First published on March 16, 2016)

Name: Alifya Sulemanji

Age: 42

Country: United States

I, Alifya Sulemanji went through the atrocity of Female Genital Mutilation. It’s been 35 years but I haven’t forgotten that day of my life even today.

One morning my mom told me we were going to visit my aunt who lives in Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, where many of the Bohras live. In the midst of the day my mom, aunt and her daughter (my cousin) told me that they were taking me somewhere to remove a worm from me. I was barely 7 years old then and didn’t know what they were really talking about. I blindly followed them. We entered some building and went up the stairs and got into this lady’s house. I had no clue what was going on.

They told me to lay down on the floor assuring me that it was so they could take out a worm from my body and it was going to be very simple. My mom told me she was so devastated, she decided to leave the room and wait outside. They took off my underpants and I saw the lady remove a brand new sharp Topaz blade from the wrapper. They caught my legs and hands so I couldn’t move. I was watching them innocently, not knowing what’s going on. In a few moments, I was screaming in pain. My private part was in terrible shooting pain and I was crying.

They told me to be quiet and I would be fine. The lady dabbed some black power on my cut area to stop me bleeding. After the procedure was done I was told to keep quiet; it was a secret not to be told to anyone.

But today I am sharing my experience with the world.

My life has been different since then. Not that I am not happy and successful, but it has left some everlasting effects on me. I have two lovely daughters. Most of the time I am paranoid about their safety and protection. I keep getting bad thoughts that someone might harm them. People have judged me as an over-protective and possessive mom, but they don’t know where it’s coming from. My husband told me that sometimes at night when we are sleeping, he hears me cry in my sleep. Many times I get nightmares about my daughters being in trouble and I wake up screaming. I have unknown fears and phobias. I have seen a psychologist regarding this.

Today, I am happy and proud for standing up for myself.

Dear daughter, I am sorry you were circumcised

(First published on May 24, 2016)

A heartfelt letter from a Bohra father, who wished to remain unnamed, to his grown-up daughter. Read the Gujarati translation of this letter here.

Dear Daughter,

Many years ago, I made a mistake. Your mother came to me and said “I’m going to have our daughter circumcised”. I knew nothing about this procedure, assuming that your mother knew best. My ignorance is no excuse for what you went through.

I’ve asked your mother many times since this occurred, why an educated woman who resides in a country where this is illegal subjected her daughter to this practice? I never received a valid reason. Simply saying that “it’s in our religion” is not a good enough answer for me to accept that my daughter went through this.

When I read your account of what happened, my eyes filled with tears. For all of these years I was oblivious to the trauma that you underwent. You were an innocent child. I wonder how many other fathers are in the same position as me – finally learning about this heinous practice and unaware of how their daughters have silently struggled with this for so many years.

I remember the first time I held you in my arms and thought to myself “she’s perfect”. You were my little miracle, after years of wanting a daughter, you finally arrived. I’m sorry that something was removed from you, because there was nothing wrong with you to begin with. I know that it is your upbringing and your strong values that prevent you from sinning and nothing else.

To think that you were only 5 years old, completely oblivious to what was happening to you and frightened, I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to protect you.

Ignorance is never an excuse. Nor is it acceptable to turn a blind eye. I promise you that I will do everything in my power to support the noble cause of finally putting an end to this practice – and ensuring that other fathers become aware of what goes on behind closed doors. A crime against girls, committed by those who love them due to incorrect beliefs and reasons.

One day, when you become a mother, I will stand behind you, like I should have done years ago and ensure that this family’s next generation never has to suffer the way that you did.

All my love,

Dad

We must realise that there is an alternative to khatna

by Insia Jaliwala

Age: 18

Country: India

The experience of khatna, not only the actual act but the implications of the practice, was a gradual revelation for me. In the vague haze of childhood memories, that particular day stands out. I must have been around 6 or 7 years old. My parents told me I could miss school that day and were taking me out, I was obviously very ecstatic.

I was taken to a ‘lady doctor’; a gynecologist who applied a red serum on my hand with a cotton bud and asked if it burned. It did. She then proceeded to do the same to my genitalia. I remember the moment when she told me to remove my pants and lie down on the bed. “It’ll be over in a minute,” she said while holding a scalpel in her hand.

There wasn’t much bleeding and I don’t even remember the pain. What I do  remember is an inhibiting confusion and fear. That day isn’t registered in my memory as a traumatic event, but a day I associate with a sense of loss. That day an important part of my womanhood was snatched away from me. That day my body was mutilated without my consent.

The reality of the twisted practice struck me only a few years ago when I got into a conversation with my elder sister who told me about her experience, which was much worse and painful. After, I started to explore the subject more. I read about female circumcision and came across the horrifying stories from Africa. I stumbled into many stories of khatna told by the women around me.

I had started to understand the terrifying implications of the practice which differed from person to person and the physical and mental trauma some of my own sisters and close friends had to go through, and are still going through. I also came across many justifications for the practice, some from my family elders which went along the lines of, “This is done to curb a girl’s sexual desire so that she can put her mind to other things”, among many others.

All of this left me with an overwhelming sense of betrayal. My family, my community, had failed me. As I dwelled into it more, I realized that this act of oppression had (as with any other social issue or phenomenon) multiple dimensions and was woven in a convoluted fabric of culture, custom and tradition.

Earlier this year, as a film project for college, I decided to make a documentary on Khatna. During my research for the film I came across Sahiyo and was amazed by the fact that so many women were willing to share their stories on this platform.

My initial thought when I decided to make the film was that no woman would want to talk about this on camera. To my surprise and glee many women around me agreed to be a part of it. There are hundreds of women (and men) out there who want this barbaric practice to stop. There needs to be a discussion about this on a communal level and people of the community need to realise that they have an alternative, they can choose not to impose this upon their young ones.

Dec 7: Join our Twitter chat on Type 1 Female Genital Cutting in Asia

Female Genital Cutting is practiced in many different ways, some less severe than others. But is a woman’s experience of such a ritual any less significant if the cutting was “mild”?

Love Matters India and Sahiyo would love to discuss this question – and many others – with all of you in a Twitter Chat on Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

Timings: The Twitter Chat begins at

  • 7.30 pm IST (India and Sri Lanka)
  • 9 am EST (US east coast)
  • 4 pm in Egypt
  • 10 pm in Singapore and Malaysia

Here is how you can participate:

  • Log into your Twitter account (or make one, if you are not on Twitter yet!)
  • Follow the handles @lovemattersinfo and @sahiyo2016
  • Respond to our questions and tweets about Type I FGC
  • Remember to use the hashtag #NoMoreKhatna in all your tweets!

facebook-nomorekhatna

Why this discussion is important: According to United Nations statistics, at least 200 million girls from 30 countries around the world have been subjected to Female Genital Cutting / Mutilation (FGC/M), a practice that involves cutting away varying degrees of the female genitalia.

The World Health Organisation classifies FGC into four types, depending on how severe the cut is. For decades, activists, researchers, funders and the media have focused mainly on Types II and III, the most severe forms of genital cutting.

Type I, however, has often been overlooked. This form involves cutting the clitoral hood, and/or part or all of the clitoris, and it is prevalent in a number of Asian communities, including the Dawoodi Bohras and Malay Muslims. All too often, concerns about this “mild” form genital cutting are dismissed as overreactions. “It is just a small nick, a small slice of skin,” we are told. “It is not the same as the mutilation done in Africa,” they say.

We believe it is time to re-examine these notions about Type I FGC, to give voice to those who have been affected and to recognise that even the least severe genital cuts are still a form of gender violence.

And as a prequel to the Twitter Chat, do watch this video by Love Matters India and director Priya Goswami, featuring Bohra voices of resistance to Type I FGC:

Proud to present: ‘A Small Nick or Cut, they say…’

Sahiyo is extremely proud to share ‘A Small Nick or Cut, they say’ – a short video produced by Love Matters India and written and directed by our very own Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami. The film features Dawoodi Bohra women and men speaking, boldly and earnestly, about the need to end Khatna, or Type I Female Genital Cutting.

If you have been reading up about Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation, you have probably come across the figure of 200 million. It’s a statistic from the United Nations: at least 200 million girls in 30 countries around the world have been subjected to the practice of FGC/M, a ritual that involves cutting away varying degrees of the female genitalia.

The World Health Organisation classifies FGC into four types, depending on how severe the cut is. And for decades, activists, researchers, funders and the media have focused mainly on Types II and III, the most severe forms of genital cutting.

Type I has often been overlooked. This form of FGC involves cutting the clitoral hood, and/or part or all of the clitoris, and it is prevalent in a number of Asian communities, including the Dawoodi Bohra community.

All too often, concerns about this “mild” form genital cutting are dismissed as overreactions. “It is just a small nick, a small slice of skin,” we are told. “It is not the same as the mutilation done in Africa,” they say.

In this video, we are here to say, “No More”. No more shall we brush aside the varied experiences of thousands of women across Asia or of Asian descent who were cut against their will. No more shall we allow “mild” genital cutting to be condoned because it is “not as bad” as the more severe forms. We shall speak, because even this least severe type of cut is a form of gender violence, and our girls should never be cut at all.

This video, produced by Love Matters India and Sahiyo, is an attempt to give voice to the multitude of experiences associated with Type I FGC. It is also an attempt to acknowledge the complexities and limitations of language – the dilemma of labeling people as “victims” or “survivors”.

The women and men featured in the video include, among others, Sahiyo’s co-founders and a father-daughter duo – Abbas and Saleha Paatwala – who want a better future for the next generation of Dawoodi Bohras.

Do watch and share the video, and join the global movement to help abandon FGC!

And finally, a big thank you to all those who have made this video possible:

A film by Love Matters India and RNW Media
Written and Directed by Priya Goswami
Director of Photography: Jayanth Mathavan
Sound Recording and Post: Tanmay Das
Music: Prabir Sekhri
Director’s Associate: Sabika Muzaffar
Production Assistance, Mumbai: Saurav Sahu; Delhi: Saleha Paatwala
Edit and Graphics: Priya Goswami
Color Correction: Mahak Gupta
Special Thanks: Siddharth Meer

As a follow-up to this video, Love Matters and Sahiyo will host a Twitter Chat on Type 1 FGC on December 7. Read more here and join us in the discussion!

A letter on khatna by a young Bohra man

by Anonymous

Age: 28

Country: United States

Hello All,

Firstly, I would like to start by telling you how ashamed I feel of being so ignorant about the issue of female khatna and how honored I am to be a part of a family whose women are spearheading the fight against FGM.

I am from an Islamic Dawoodi Bohra family that comprises mainly of women. I have six beautiful sisters. They have all undergone khafd (khatna). Back then, there was no awareness and there was tons of social pressure. Everything was done quietly and no one spoke about it. At least in my community, it was a given that a girl child had to have her khatna done. Not doing it would be condemned.

Women who have gone through FGM have started talking about their experiences. Openly speaking about this issue has done great good for the community as it has helped build awareness and made folks like me, who were ignorant about it, read and learn more about it. I salute the women who have been bold to talk about this. Thank you!

Listening to these experiences makes me really sad. Sad because this has been going on since so long and this practice has absolutely no foundation. It makes me sad that educated people never questioned it and were so socially engrossed that they just did what they were told to do. It makes me sad because it just proves how sexist the world is (which I do not want to believe).

It saddens me because parents are still putting their daughter through this.

For my religious friends: the Quran does not even mention khatna. So please do not put a religious aspect to this practice. This practice only has side effects. For those who are not aware – please please read here.

More importantly – it is her body, please respect it.

This issue is important and it must be dealt with. It needs support from each and every member of the community including the men.

I was stripped of many things the day I was cut

(First published on January 23, 2016) 

by Mariya Ali

Age: 32

Country: United Kingdom

I have very few memories of my childhood, but one memory in particular stands out and haunts me to this day. Unfortunately, it’s a vivid, painful memory and fills me with anger when I recall it.

I was five years old when my mother and aunt took my cousin and I on an “excursion”. I remember sitting in a car and approaching an unfamiliar block of apartments. I was confused; I didn’t know where I was and what I was doing there. Despite my seemingly endless young imagination, I could never have anticipated what happened to me next.

I walked into a small apartment with a cramped living room at the end of a very short corridor. There was a dampness in the air and a slight smell from the poor ventilation. I approached the living room and sat on the floor. It was a warm day and I watched the net curtains of the large window slowly move with the breeze. I had been greeted by an old lady, whose face I can’t remember. I didn’t recognise her and was confused as to why I was currently in her apartment. I watched as she walked out of the room. I peered inquisitively into the kitchen and caught a glimpse of her heating a knife on the stove. I was always told to stay away from sharp knives at that age. Knives were dangerous. I could hurt myself. I remember the open flame on the stove and seeing the silver of the metal and the black handle of the knife while I watched her quickly hold it over the naked flame. She approached the living room with the knife in her hand, trying to conceal it behind her. She approached me.

My mother asked me to remove my underwear. I remember saying no; I didn’t want a strange woman to see me without my underwear on. My mother assured me it would be okay; I trusted her and did as she asked. The old lady told me that she wanted to check something in my private area and asked me to open my legs. I was so young that I wasn’t scared at that time. I was confused, but not scared. I was innocently oblivious to how invasive and inappropriate this situation was and so I obediently did as I was told.

I remember a sharp pain. An agonising pain. A pain that I can still vividly remember today. So intense that I still have a lump in my throat when I recall that moment. I instantly started sobbing, from pain, shock, confusion and fear. My next memory is that of blood. More blood than I had ever seen, suddenly gushing out from my most intimate area. I still didn’t comprehend what had just happened to me. I had believed that aunty when she had told me that she was checking something. I was young and naive enough to believe that people don’t lie and this was my first encounter when I realised that, unfortunately, the world doesn’t work like that. In so many ways I was stripped of many things on that day. My rosy outlook on life, my childhood innocence, my right to dictate what happens to my body and my faith in my mother not harming me. I continued to cry, the pain was excruciating and the sight of the blood traumatised me. I was given a sweet and comforted by my mother.  The events after that are still hazy and my next clear memory is that of being back in the car and staring through teary eyes at the apartment building disappear as we drove away.

Over the years I repressed this memory. There was no need to recall it. It was never spoken about and I still remained unaware of what transpired that day. A decade later, I was amongst some of my female friends. The topic of Female Genital Mutilation came up, or as I was to discover that day, “khatna”, a Bohra ritual performed on young girls. Hearing their recollections of what had happened to them, I finally realised that this is what had happened to me that day.

I was mutilated.

Thankfully for me, I had a lucky escape. The unskilled, uneducated woman who barbarically cut me did not cause me too much physical damage. Emotionally and mentally, there are many repercussions. I have a deep phobia of blood and a simmering resentment that my mother chose for this to happen to me. Although my mother believed that she was acting in my best interest, I struggle to come to terms with the fact that I was so barbarically violated.

It may have been just a pinch of skin, but it was a part of me, a part of my femininity and a part of my womanhood.